Attorney General Jeff Sessions Thursday decision to allow the Department of Justice to prosecute marijuana use in states that have legalized the federally classified drug is widely being seen as politically ill-advised and harmful to a $16 billion industry.
But Sessions’ decision has also raised the fears of groups like the American Civil Liberties Union who say that stringently enforcing federal marijuana laws will disproportionately target people of color. His memo does away with five policies issued during the Obama-era that aimed to minimize federal prosecution against those using medical or recreational marijuana in states where the drug is legal.
“It’s going to mean more black and brown people are going to end up in prison,” Jesselyn McCurdy, deputy director of the ACLU, in an interview.
Civil rights groups praised changes made during Barack Obama’s presidency that advised federal attorneys not to prioritize enforcement in states that had legalized marijuana medically or recreationally. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana. Eight states — including the entire West Coast — and Washington, D.C., have passed marijuana-related ballot initiatives.
In 2013, the ACLU found black people are nearly four times as likely as white people to be arrested for marijuana possession — even though white and black Americans use marijuana at similar rates, McCurdy said.
The numbers are even starker in some individual states and cities. From 2014-2016, 86% of those arrested for marijuana possession in New York City were black or Hispanic. A decade of data on arrests in Virginia found blacks accounted for nearly half of all marijuana possession arrests despite being only a fifth of the state’s population.
Overall, about 70% of those in federal prisons are people of color. And nearly half are in the system for drug crimes, McCurdy said.
The racial disparity was particularly evident in Washington, D.C. Prior to legalization there in February 2015, about 90% of those arrested for marijuana possession were black people. That was a key factor in the passage of a 2014 ballot initiative to legalize recreational and medical marijuana in Washington, D.C.
Now, following Sessions’ marijuana enforcement guidance, the District’s rnearly 700,000 residents could be particularly targeted as the city’s justice system is largely run by officials adhering to federal law.
“It could definitely have a huge effect in D.C., specifically because you don’t have that separation between local prosecutors and federal prosecutors,” McCurdy said.
Elsewhere, particularly in states that allow recreational marijuana and its commercial sale, enforcement will be determined by U.S. attorneys. In Colorado, the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, the federal prosecutor there said Thursday that there will be no change in enforcement.
McCurdy said the ACLU views Thursday’s move by Sessions as the latest in a string of “law and order” decisions that will lead to more Americans of color behind bars. In May 2017, Sessions also rolled back Obama-era legal guidance that said judges did not have to impose lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes.
“You have to look at this as part of the broader moves that the Trump-Sessions administration has made around prosecution of drug crimes,” McCurdy said. “It’s very concerning.”